Speaking to VOA from his New York apartment, Dmitry Savchenko, 34, recalls the prosperous life he recently left behind.
“In Belarus, we had everything. My wife had several cafes. I had two businesses myself, some real estate, an apartment, a car,” he said.
Savchenko and his family had never intended to leave their home. But in the last few months, for him and many other Belarussian citizens, what was once unthinkable became a dire necessity.
“We were faced with a dilemma: either go to prison or run and hide in another country,” he said.
Long described as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” Belarus has been run for 27 years by Alexander Lukashenko. But in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, there was a sense among his opponents that he was politically vulnerable.
Savchenko says he has been apolitical his entire life, but in those months he, like many others, was “smelling change in the air,” inspired by the caliber and diversity of presidential candidates eager to challenge Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.
Two months before election day, August 9, the hopeful Belarusian entrepreneur registered as an independent observer for the polls.
But Savchenko was setting himself up for a major disappointment.
On the day of the vote, Savchenko chronicled numerous irregularities in his precinct, which reached their climax with the members of the elections committee — which normally consist of regime loyalists — not letting the independent observers monitor the process in person. The elections committee members then fled the building with the ballots through the backdoor, escorted by the local police, Savchenko says.
Hearing hundreds of stories like Savchenko’s from friends and family — as well as from independent media — ordinary Belarusians took to the streets. The country saw a rise of civic awareness unprecedented in its history. In Minsk alone, about 200,000 people came out for a peaceful protest on one of the post-election weekends.
And then the violence began.
Trying to drown people’s enthusiasm, Lukashenko, who baselessly claimed victory with more than 80% of the vote, unleashed a wave of repression and violence against the protesters. Video and photo evidence of police brutality, as well as of demonstrators’ mutilated bodies, made headlines around the world.
“Some of my friends participated in those protests,” Savchenko said. “It was heart-wrenching to even look at them (after their release from jail).”
Those who appeared to have suffered the most were those sent to the infamous Okrestina detention center in the country’s capital where, according to numerous detainee accounts, they were beaten and tortured for hours and not given food or water for days.
“Photos of the people who were released from the Okrestina detention center looked like the photos of people who came from war,” Savchenko added. “And I denounce that. Because people came out (to protest) unarmed.”
Savchenko says he is determined to punish those who so flagrantly abused the law.
“I am gathering proof of falsifications of the election results, abuse of police authority. And I decided that I will bring them to justice no matter where I am,” he said.
He sent the incriminating evidence he had gathered to BYPOL, an independent union of Belarusian ex-security officers whose mission is to keep a registry of crimes committed by the Lukashenko regime.
The state’s crackdown drew international condemnation, but Savchenko says that did not stop the authorities from methodically targeting their critics after the elections.
“At first, the authorities cracked down on most vocal protesters, then on independent media. After that they started laying off state officials who — how should I put it — didn’t vote for ‘the right candidate.’ Slowly but surely, they got to the people who were election observers,” he said.
For days, he was harassed and intimidated, then detained and beaten by the police. The authorities threatened to send his 5-year-old son to an orphanage.
So he and his family ran. First to Moscow, then all the way to Mexico City, then to Tijuana, then to the United States, where they are seeking political asylum.
Washington-based immigration lawyer Elizabeth Krukova specializes in providing legal help to asylum-seekers from the countries of the former Soviet Union. She says there are many others like the Savchenko family.
“We’ve seen a number of these cases and a big increase in the number of cases coming from Belarus specifically,” she said.
VOA spoke with several Belarusian asylum-seekers who arrived in the United States from the southern border following the post-election crackdown. They all spoke of intimidation, detainment and beatings by police back home.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows a steady increase in the number of encounters of Belarusian migrants by the southwest border CBP officers — from three in October 2020 to 123 in September 2021.
Savchenko says the main reason his family chose to travel to the U.S. instead of Europe is safety.
“There is a network of Russian and Belarusian agents that are active in the countries neighboring Belarus, as well as in some EU states,” he said.
Belarusian officials demonstrated their relentless pursuit of critics when they forced a civilian Ryanair flight to land in Minsk last year and arrested an opposition blogger, Roman Protasevich. Another exiled Belarusian activist, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv, an unsolved case widely seen as the work of Minsk’s clandestine services.
John Sipher, the former CIA deputy chief of station in Europe, still views Europe as relatively safe but says the fears of dissidents are not groundless.
He says horror stories of kidnappings and murders spread among dissidents “like wildfires.”
“If there are a few cases where Belarusians are hunted down or arrested, or brought back to Minsk, then it becomes a story that makes its way around that community,” Sipher said.
With Russian troops now massing in Belarus and more on the border of Ukraine, experts see the region’s authoritarian leaders becoming more collaborative, putting their critics at greater risk.
“Since Lukashenko’s crackdown in the last year or so, he is going to be looking for more opportunities to assist (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Putin is going to be looking for means to work with Belarusians on these issues,” Sipher said.
Experts say whether an activist is in danger depends on how high their name is on the Belarusian KGB’s priorities list. But it’s a guessing game no one on the list wants to play.
VOA’s Aline Barros contributed to this report.your ad here